Nick Miller July 21, 2012
Andrew Upton, Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh have brought the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Chekhov play Uncle Vanya to New York City. Photo: Trevor Collens
THE ''stupid silences'' of Uncle Vanya are coming to garrulous New York. Two years since the Sydney Theatre Company's acclaimed production opened, and after a rapturously received run last year in Washington DC, Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh are still slightly terrified by the play.
''It's excruciating,'' says Blanchett. ''What I find the most difficult thing to exist within is what Tamas [Ascher, the Hungarian director] describes in Chekhov as the 'stupid silences' where everyone just falls into a silence that is utterly stupid, and their stupidity is revealed to them, and they are staring into a void.''
You get the impression that Richard Roxburgh, who plays the title role, finds it less excruciating and more, well, funny.
''It's the opposite of what we were always taught at drama school, which is the pauses were so full of meaning. Tamas is like 'no, people just don't have anything to say. It's hot.' ''
It certainly is hot. STC has landed amid a heatwave punctuated by biblical storms. New Yorkers are going to relate to the play's stifling summer setting.
This is not the only Vanya in town. A controversial ''deconstructed'' Vanya just closed in Greenwich Village, and a rave-reviewed Soho Rep version is playing through to August.
But the cast members are focused on delivering their own take - more than a dash of Australian character in a spare, punchy adaptation by Andrew Upton, spiced with Ascher's European flair and clownish bravado. Roxburgh loves the energy of the play, an antidote to the standard delivery of Chekhov as ''a drawing room comedy without the drawing room or the comedy''.
And the cast clearly loves the risks that Ascher forces them to make, undaunted by the stellar names at his command (Hugo Weaving, John Bell and Jacki Weaver are also in the play).
''His parting shot when he left Washington last year was 'those bits that you love and that are really working and that you can feel the audience is on the edge of their seat enjoying - don't do them, just risk not doing them','' Blanchett says. ''You might return to them but you might also find something new, when you shock yourself out of it. So coming back to it now, there's an inherent playfulness in it which I think the audience will find.''
Roxburgh agrees: ''It was the best direction ever.''
But he also feels that the cast has grown into the play, discovering new hints and angles of inspiration in Chekhov's subtext-rich play. ''I came into it with all channels open, and there's a patina of age that happens each time you do it. As I age and become less beautiful, the production actually becomes more beautiful. It's the gravity of years, weird dust settling over time and subliminally dealing with things in the play.''
Blanchett says Ascher ran rehearsals as a ''conductor'', asking for a shorter pause there, a bigger gesture here, channelling the music of the play.
Upton, who hasn't seen the play since 2010, says it has gained so much depth that it makes other productions feel like ''sketches''. He's proud that New York will get to see such a strong, and uniquely Australian take on a master work.
The STC has had a busy time recently overseas, bringing Hedda Gabler to Brooklyn in 2006, returning in 2009 with A Streetcar Named Desire, and taking A History of Everything to Chicago earlier this year.
And Blanchett is just coming off a tour of Gross und Klein which visited Paris and London.
She says tours like this build ''pathways'' for Australian acts to the world stage. ''[Audiences] will get a sense of the diversity of work that goes on, not just in our company, but in Australia.''